VOLVER — *** — Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas; in Spanish, with English subtitles; rated R (vulgarity, profanity, drugs, sex, brief gore, brief partial nudity).

Nearly all of the films by Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar have had a melodramatic, soap-opera quality.

That's equally true of his latest, "Volver," a dark comic thriller with at least as many twists and turns as your typical Spanish "telenovela."

As goofy as some aspects of the film are, however, it's not quite as ridiculous and cartoonish as that description may sound. In fact, it's one of Almodovar's warmer, more appealing recent efforts.

The material is ideal for Penelope Cruz, whose career has been in a slump lately. She stars as Raimunda, who's coping with one tragedy after another.

It's been years since the death of her parents, but Raimunda is still recovering, which has forced her and her sister Sole (Lola Duenas) to fret about their scatter-brained Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), who was under their mother's care.

Things go from bad to worse after a violent confrontation at home between Raimunda's husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) and their teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). Paula fatally stabs her father and Raimunda is forced to cover up the killing; she tells her friends that she and Paco have had a disagreement and that he's left her.

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In the meantime, Sole has begun seeing the ghost of her mother, Irene (Carmen Maura). The surprisingly lifelike apparition has even moved in with her, but seems a bit reluctant to see Raimunda.

Various subplots also delve into a mystery regarding Irene and her husband's death, as well as the various personal troubles of Raimunda's childhood friend (Blanca Portillo).

The ensemble cast is terrific, though Cruz is the obvious star. Her character's look appears to have been inspired by the young Sophia Loren, who also seems to have inspired Cruz's engaging performance. (Cruz's voice is dubbed for a song by Spanish singer Estrella Morente.)

"Volver" is rated R for strong sexual language (vulgar slang and profanity, as well as other frank sex talk), drug content (marijuana use and references, as well as pharmaceuticals), brief simulated sex and other sexual contact (some implied), off-screen violence (a stabbing), brief gore, and brief partial female nudity. Running time: 121 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com